It wasn’t all roses but in many ways, 2022 marked the return of a feel-good era. We went back outside, marched to the dance floor and some of us, after a few years of isolation and introspection, emerged from our solitude as better people who finally learned the value of choosing ourselves. No matter what the year brought us, R&B matched our energy on every level. Here are the top 11 albums that best captured the themes of the year.
Beyoncé – RENAISSANCE
This is an album only a Virgo could make.
On RENAISSANCE, Beyoncé puts her meticulous attention to detail to work, from the song sequencing to her sophisticated vocal performance and the Studio 54-inspired cover art. She also commits to authenticity. Rather than simply try dance music on for size, she enlists veterans like Nile Rodgers and Grace Jones for features, gives disco icons like Donna Summer their flowers through sampling, and weaves LGBTQ voices into her work; paying homage to the community of Black queer creators who built — and still inform — the culture.
Beyoncé has nothing left to prove. And yet, on this album she demands an excellence of herself that further cements her as one of one.
Steve Lacy – Gemini Rights
It’s the realest breakup album of the year.
On Gemini Rights, Steve Lacy explores the grey areas of separation, all while solidifying his rock star status. As he plays with R&B, bossa nova, jazz and rock, Lacy digs deep and touches on all of the feelings one experiences during a breakup. There are days when you’re pissed (“Static”), days when you’re sad (“Helmet”), and days when you just want that old thing back, even if just for a night (“Sunshine”). Lacy captures that full range of emotion perfectly, all while flexing his talent for writing and melody. It’s no wonder this album was his big breakthrough.
Ari Lennox – age/sex/location
This was likely your favorite album if 2022 was the year you got fed up with the pee-stained dating pool, deleted your apps out of frustration and chose to devote your energy toward house plants instead of a relationship.
With her frank delivery and relatable lyrics, Ari Lennox says the quiet parts out loud. She walks through the ebb and flow of single life — the boredom (“POF”), the frustration (“Boy Bye” with Lucky Daye), the lust (“Leak It” with Chloe Bailey), and ultimately, the peace of mind that comes with getting out of the game and choosing yourself (“Queen Space” with Summer Walker). It’s Eat, Pray, Love, but with much better rhythm.
Kehlani – blue water road
The cover to Kehlani’s previous album, It Was Good Until It Wasn’t, featured the artist with their back to us, peering over a wall made of solid brick. But fittingly, they’ve described blue water road as a “a glass house. It’s light, it’s transparent and the sun is shining right through it.”
True to form, Kehlani softens on this album, weaving poetry into their lyrics on songs like “little story” (“You know I love a story/Only when you’re the author/Tryna meet you at the altar”) and “melt” (“Wish I could build me a cute apartment/Right where your heart is”). Kehlani is tenderhearted, but grittier tracks like “wish I never” and “any given sunday” keep the album from being too cutesy.
Every feature on blue water road is expertly placed, especially Syd on the steamy “get me started” and Canadian crooner Jessie Reyez on “more than I should.” Kehlani’s voice is satisfying on its own, but pairs beautifully with each collaborator.
Kenyon Dixon – Closer
On Closer, Kenyon Dixon vies for the title of Certified Lover Boy.
This soulful indie effort has all the hallmarks of the classic, feel-good R&B Dixon grew up on: Warm, stick-to-your ribs instrumentation; silky vocals; and plenty of cozy love songs to choose from for your clothing-optional encounters.
There are also a handful of thoughtful features that give the project just the right touch. Houston’s Susan Carol shines on the sensual duet “Here” and “WYTD,” which features an assist from Gwen Bunn, is a perfect moment of levity. Tiffany Gouché and D Smoke are also welcome additions, and Dixon brings a different side of himself to his performance with each of them. The vibes are good and the replay value is high.
Mary J. Blige – Good Morning Gorgeous
Personally and professionally, Mary J. Blige has been through it all. But on Good Morning Gorgeous, she proves that learning, growing and healing are lifelong processes — and she continues to do so gracefully.
Like always, Blige navigates the complexity of love and heartbreak with her trademark vulnerability and sincerity. But throughout Gorgeous, she injects something that was largely absent from her earlier work: A heavy dose of self-compassion. She’s able to be open and honest about her pain (“Falling in Love” and “Rent Money”), but she’s wise enough not to live in the grief forever (“Good Morning Gorgeous” and “Love Without the Heartbreak”).
Musically, she continues to prove her dexterity, sliding from soul to drill, hip hop and even old school reggae with ease. She could teach a master class.
Dylan Sinclair – No Longer in the Suburbs
Coming of age and gaining fame are, individually, difficult journeys to navigate. On No Longer in the Suburbs, Dylan Sinclair grapples with both in a mature and addictive sonic display.
Musically, Sinclair moves away from the gospel influences of his 2020 project, Proverb, and leans into nostalgic R&B/soul that brings artists like Usher and Musiq Soulchild to mind. Lyrically, he’s sincere, introspective, and wise beyond his 21 years.
Though the life changes Sinclair sings about on tracks like “Lifetime” or “Suppress” make for heavy subject matter, there is a tenderness in his delivery that keeps the album from being too dark. If R&B were a class, Sinclair would surely be its top student.
Ravyn Lenae – HYPNOS
Instant gratification is the norm in today’s music landscape. As soon as an artist releases an album, the expectation is that they’ll pump out another right away. Either that or risk falling out of collective memory.
But on her full-length debut, HYPNOS, Ravyn Lenae showcases the benefits of taking one’s time. This psychedelic, funk-laced fever dream took four years to craft but won’t be forgotten in this lifetime. Lenae’s feather-light voice floats on dreamy tracks like “Inside Out” and “Mercury,” while packing a quiet punch on addictive, pulsing club anthems like “Xtasy.”
Also worth noting is the album’s expert combo of producers — especially standouts like Monte Booker, KAYTRANADA and Steve Lacy — who create an ethereal foundation of beats that are perfectly suited for Lenae’s gossamer vocals. Patience pays off.
Blxst – Before You Go
Blxst set an impossibly high bar for himself with 2020’s No Love Lost. But lucky for us all, he met every standard on the follow-up, Before You Go.
This album picks up where the previous one leaves off, centering themes of love, loyalty and going the distance in relationships. Everything about Before You Go is radio-ready, from the glossy, polished production to the infectious sing-along hooks and Blxst’s seamless, rap-leaning delivery. There’s tight wordplay, ear-grabbing melodies and a persistent West Coast knock that makes the album easy to enjoy. The hard part is picking a favorite track.
Brent Faiyaz – Wasteland
Brent Faiyaz doesn’t shy away from chronicling the tough stuff. On Wasteland, he explores the dark sides of love and fame in the brash, in-your-face manner that’s become his trademark. With deceptively angelic vocals, Faiyaz details stories of excess, recklessness and heartbreak over brooding, moody beats. The music is cohesive on its own, but it’s what Faiyaz does in between the songs that ties the album together and elevates his artistry.
The series of skits on Wasteland give the album an immersive, cinematic feel and build toward a dramatic, harrowing climax that will leave you on the edge of your seat. It’s an album that plays like a film.
India Shawn – Before We Go (Deeper)
On Before We Go (Deeper), India Shawn makes good on her promises from last year’s EP.
Produced almost entirely by R&B genius D’Mile, Deeper is an extension of its predecessor on which Shawn searches for love. She doesn’t want just any old fling — she’s on a quest for something that digs beneath the surface and provides real substance.
Although all seven tracks that appeared on 2021’s Before We Go EP are given to us again, none of them feel quite the same. Shawn and D’Mile breathe new life into songs like “Cali Love,” which is refurbished with a feature from Ambré; and “Movin’ On,” which, when it follows the melancholic “Same Floor,” takes on a whole new meaning. One track will make you sad, and the other will dust off the woe.